“Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.” Numbers 19:22 NIV
The Law is full of directions about what is unclean, and the purification rituals that need to be undertaken to bring a person back to cleanliness. To be perfectly honest, it is all so involved that it was a wonder if there were 3 clean people in the whole of Israel at any one time. Many foods are listed as unclean and various animals, as well as practices and bodily functions. The whole thing is a minefield that took some negotiating. Staying clean was a full time occupation, and quite clearly, especially for women, impossible, which to my mind is part of the point of the law. We need to first understand the impossibility of saving ourselves, of being holy, before we can take on board the need for a holy saviour who can free us by grace.
We might think that these days and especially as Christians that we are free from the attitude that lies behind these laws and the obsession with cleanliness and perceived sin that they inspire. But we’d be wrong. There are just whole new ways of being unclean. Spend time in any organisation, yes, including churches, and you will find that there are certain things or ways of being that are unacceptable, or that will get you ridiculed, disrespected or even thrown out, and that will certainly get you avoided. Being chronically ill can be one of them. There are a lot of modern day lepers. Being mentally ill, poor, difficult to talk to, riddled with problems or addictions, wearing the “wrong” clothes, voicing the “wrong” opinions or even rocking the boat or questioning the status quo, all these things and more can mean that you end up feeling like you should be wandering outside the city gates with a bell around your neck.
But the truth is as Paul saw it, much more in our minds than in any objective purity, for as he said, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” Romans 14:14 NIV The purity or lack of purity in something is all perception. If we see riches and designer clothes as pure, the poor and the hoody-wearers will seem unclean to us. If we think our Sunday roasts are sacrosanct family time we might well avoid tofu-eating hippies (like me!), or people who work on the Sabbath.
If we are men struggling with sexual self-discipline, women’s bodies will need to be far more covered up so that we don’t see their “uncleanness” even though it is our own lusts that are unsavoury. We project our judgement onto others, and we can often tell our own unclean areas by the things we find distasteful in others. It works the same way with religious orthodoxy. The truth is that anyone or anything can become unclean to us if it helps us feel superior or more sure of ourselves.
The good news is that all of this antagonism and self-righteousness can be dropped if we truly hear the gospel and seek to live it out. We are all saved by grace and not one of us has the right to proclaim another unclean, since we understand that we were all lifted from the pigpen by the same hand, and that we all fall back (or even sneak back) to the mud from time to time, needing a good hosing down before we smell quite as fragrant as we imagine we do.
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